This profile originally appeared on Gigwise on April 27th 2010.
Sitting in the sundrenched beer garden of an east London pub, Steve Mason is talking about a recent broadsheet interview he gave which he believes “missed a bit of a trick” by proclaiming his new album to be about depression. “This isn’t an album about depression at all, it’s not about depression or anything,” he says, before highlighting that only the album’s title track ‘Boys Outside’ mentions the disorder – and even that song is “about saying goodbye to depression”.
Mason’s frustration is perhaps understandable. While it is true that the Scotsman has suffered from depression for “about 15 years”, ‘Boys Outside’ is far from an irksome deference to the disorder. In places, for example, like on the opener ‘Understand My Heart’ or ‘I Let Her In’, Mason recalls romantic failure as a hypnotic mixture of acoustic guitar and subtle synthesisers unravel themselves softly in the background. And as one has come to expect from the singer who found fame in the mid-90s as the outspoken frontman of the critically acclaimed The Beta Band, there are also songs about how nothing is sacred anymore, and the meagreness of politics. It’s no surprise then that ‘Boys Outside’ has already been greeted with the kind of positive reception Mason once came to expect.
“It’s amazing, it’s already exceeded my expectations I have to say,” Mason says of the kind response so far. “I’m doing sort of Beta Band levels of press – we used to do a lot back then – so it’s great. I mean, I’m very happy with it, I know it’s a good record – but I suppose every record I’ve ever put out I always thought it was amazing at the time.”
Before we met, I had been warned by people who have interviewed Mason in the past to expect one of two receptions: he could be either welcoming or, to quote one journalist who spoke to him over a decade ago, “very rude”. This is, after all, the same singer who while promoting The Beta Band’s self-titled debut album in 1999 famously described it as a “crock of shit” – an erroneous statement which seemed to pre-empt the band’s eventual demise five years later.
Only it’s not. Today, as he sips on a coca cola drink, Mason, now 37, is far from the confrontational character that once greeted interviewers. His sentences, like when he’s discussing the recent TV leadership debates – “I watched little odds and ends of it yeah, just because I was hoping that Gordon Brown might smack one of them in the mouth at one point but he never did” – are frequently punctuated by a warm smile. He’s also visibly relaxed, and appears finally, after a six-year period of releasing albums under different pseudonyms, including most recently as the electro act Black Affair, to be at ease in his own skin, which is perhaps why he’s chosen to release his new album under his own name.
“I think it’s just a case of getting a bit older and feeling probably more comfortable with myself, and less like I want to hide from everything all the time,” he says, frankly. “Being able to kind of stand up and say, ‘Yeah I made this,’ rather than hiding behind all these different names.”
In fact, Mason says he began writing ‘Boys Outside’ with the intention of releasing it as the follow-up to Black Affair’s debut album ‘Pleasure Pressure Point’, but “then I just lost heart in it – in the synths, the drums and stuff like that – and I hadn’t really picked up an acoustic guitar for a long time”. When he did, he says he wrote a song “pretty much straight away” and continued to write tracks acoustically at his cottage near St Andrews, in Fife, before contacting Richard X, who had already agreed to work with him on Black Affair’s second record. Despite the producer’s pop-dance background as the mastermind behind chart hits for the Sugababes and Liberty X, Mason says Richard X “loved” his new direction, so much so that he bankrolled everything until they secured a publishing deal with Domino. He also admits that he felt the same way about handing over the reigns to someone else after producing all of the albums by his post-Beta Band guises.
He smiles, for example, when I mention a YouTube video of the pair in the studio, which shows Richard X telling the singer to “just do it” as he hesitates over a guitar part. “Yeah, which I really liked,” he says of the producer’s assertiveness, “because no one’s really done that to me before.”
It’s testament to what the pair have produced that Mason, having recently relocated to London, says he’s now excited about “being kicked into this whole promotion thing” again.
“I feel very differently about it than I used to feel. I used to think of it as…” he pauses, allowing the sound of two drinkers kicking a football nearby to intensify, before continuing, “as something I didn’t really want to do. You wanted to see the articles in the paper or magazine – or whatever it was – but you didn’t necessarily want to go and have to speak to the journalist about it.”
Mason believes that the journalists he’s met in recent weeks have been different – probably, he thinks, because of the Internet – to those he’s experienced in the past. In the days of The Beta Band, he says, they “were all fucking major cokeheads that felt like they were part of the band and that kind of thing”, whereas now they “seem to go to a lot more effort”. His only gripe seems to be with the NME. “Read stuff like the NME now and it’s like The Sun,” he says. “It’s written for people with no brains, but people have those brains.”
While extensive sessions of hypnotherapy over the last two years have helped erase many of Mason’s demons, it’s encouraging to see that he’s not lost all of his forthright sincerity. For instance, he’s still clearly frustrated by the country’s political system. Album track ‘Yesterday’, he explains, is “about gathering a group of people together and marching on the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall with petrol bombs and levelling it to the fucking ground, and rebuilding the political system from the ground up”.
Does he think the upcoming election will make any difference? “No it’s fucking farce,” he replies, sharply. “No absolutely not, of course not.” He stops. “The government and the banks hate the people of this country, they hate the general public, they have no interest in them whatsoever, and that’s a very dangerous situation.”
As we part, I wonder whether Mason ever feels as if there’s any unfinished business with his previous outfits, notably The Beta Band. “No, I’ve never felt that at all.” A grin suddenly smothers his face. “It’s a good way of putting it though, I’ve never heard anyone manage to bring up The Beta Band with the unfinished business thing – that’s a good one.”
So this genuinely feels like a new start, I say.
“Yeah, it definitely feels right, it feels like a lot of different things have come together, and I’m very lucky that I’ve still got a lot of support out there,” he responds, sincerely. “There’s always been a willingness for me to make a really, really good record, which is really nice. I really appreciate it, and now I’ve actually managed to do that people are like, ‘Ah thank fuck for that, he’s actually done something that we all really, really like.’” And with that, another smile emerges.